There is no denying that gut health has become one of the most researched areas in science over the last decade. With more and more studies associating significant drivers of health with gut health, it’s hard to ignore the importance of building and maintaining strong internal health. Luckily, by exposing the body to the “right” conditions through nutrition, supplementation, mental health support and sleep, gut health can be restored to optimal function to sustain overall health and prevent future disease.
Whether you like it or not, microbes rule our world. Microbial research dates back to the 1660s with the observation of mold structures by Robert Hooke and the later discovery of bacteria by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. It is estimated that there are around 1 billion microbes in a spoonful of soil (you can only imagine how many reside across the entire globe). The “microbiome,” coined in 2001 by Nobel Laureate and microbiologist, Joshua Lederberg, refers to the collection of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and viruses that live on and inside the human body. There are close to 100 trillion microbes make up the human microbiome, most residing in the Gastrointestinal Tract. Microbes not only play a role in digesting food consumed, but are also important in metabolism, regulating the immune system and producing key hormones required for healthy brain function.
Key indicators of gut health include diversity and microbial stability because they have been shown to be inversely associated with chronic disease and metabolic dysfunction. When these factors are compromised, “dysbiosis” can occur that disrupts microbiome balance, which can trigger inflammation and immune dysregulation and have a dramatic effect on overall health. Poor gut health has been associated with various chronic health conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 & 2 diabetes, IBS, and cardiovascular disease, as well as neurological, metabolic, respiratory, and mental health disorders. In many cases, gut health is often considered a “root cause” of an illness, leaving this previously overlooked area of health a priority for intervention according to most functional medicine-trained doctors.
How to support the microbiome
Supporting the microbiome is arguably one of the most important behaviors we can do as humans. Luckily, the gut is remarkably resilient: our microbial communities can respond to interventions in as little as 3 days, and can completely rebalance with healthy bacteria in around 6 months. Adopting gut-supporting habits is often the first step towards addressing and preventing chronic illnesses.
Nutrition & Supplementation
It is rather obvious, but a major way to support gut microbiome is to literally feed it what it needs to thrive. The healthy food we eat has powerful healing properties on its own, in addition to beneficial compounds that fuel a healthy microbiome. Prebiotics and probiotics are important elements to include in everyday nutrition. Probiotics include beneficial bacteria found in food or supplements (yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables), whereas prebiotics are the types of fiber that feed the gut’s “good” bacteria (whole sources of fruits and vegetables). Other supplements that support microbiome health include L-Glutamine, magnesium, fish oil, and vitamin D. Before stocking up on supplements, however, it is best to speak to your provider about what vitamins and minerals you may be missing from your diet first. Specialized blood testing can help determine whether you are low on key nutrients that can better support your digestive health.
Stress & Mental Health
The connection between mental health and physical health has been strongly documented in recent research. This has been pioneered through the discovery of the “gut-brain axis” or the physical and chemical connections between the central nervous system and the body’s microbiota. With the gut producing a majority of the neurotransmitters used by the brain, it is clear that a healthy gut can support mental health. However, the connection is bidirectional. Stress and anxiety can trigger inflammation in the gut and can affect the production of the hunger and satiety signaling hormones, ghrelin and leptin. This may be due to stress altering the microbiota in the gut which impacts functioning, some research suggests. Supporting the brain means supporting the microbiome, and vice-versa. Find an appropriate outlet or protocol that helps manage daily stress and consider your mental health a large piece of your physical health when speaking with your healthcare provider about how you’re feeling.
Sleep is paramount to overall health. This also includes the health of the microbiome. Good sleep is associated with microbiome diversity, a key indicator of gut health mentioned previously. Similar to the bidirectional association with the gut-brain axis, sleep and the gut are also intimately connected. Poor sleep can lead to gut issues and gut issues can lead to poor sleep. In fact, “intestinal microbiota exhibit circadian rhythms in both population structure and functional activity,” research shows. Meaning our microbes can sense our wake and sleep times and function accordingly. If sleep is thrown off, so might be our microbes. With the gut intricately linked to the body’s sleep patterns, it’s important to practice good sleep hygiene each and every night. (Read more about Dr. Stevens’ tips on sleep hygiene here.)
There are several other factors that affect the microbiome, including exercise, environmental toxin exposure, medication use and genetics. Sustainably building back a healthy gut may at first look like considering what is the most significant source of risk of dysbiosis and intervening appropriately with oversight from a functional medicine provider. Then, slowly incorporating more lifestyle changes and supplementation guided by your provider. The impact of a healthy gut can be dramatic, from healthy bowel movements, to regulated metabolism and lowered stress. Curious how you can benefit from a functional medicine approach to gut healing? Speak to our team today by scheduling a Meet & Greet.